The Devaluation of Nature Photography
Up until about 20 years ago, or so, it was possible for to make a decent living as a nature photographer. Not a lavish life style, but enough to live on comfortably. Direct sales to magazines, and print sales, along with stock sales, allowed an industrious shooter to produce enough high-quality photos to secure a reasonable living. The advent of digital photography, the development of Photoshop and other processing software, along with the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web, impacted photography, especially nature photography, in unforeseen ways. The number of shooters increased, access to markets expanded, and competition, already fierce, turned lethal. Almost everyone with a digital camera or smart phone could produce, with the help of software, marketable imagery. An already saturated marketplace was overwhelmed. Nature photographs, instead of being a limited product produced by skilled photographers, became a commodity. Product far outstripped demand and the value of images plummeted. For some, it was a harsh reality to learn that photography was not immune to the basic precept of the free market, when supply exceeds demand, prices fall.
That trend will continue. Last year an estimated 20 trillion photos were taken around the world. Yes, trillion. Obviously, the vast majority were made with smart phones but many of those were of sufficient quality to be published. A spike in eco-tourism, coupled with the flood of retiring baby boomers who discovered photography as a hobby, expanded the legion of new shooters in the field. The technology that made photography relatively easy, no training necessary, enabled even more people to join the crowd. Anyone who has gone afield to photograph wildlife has experienced the ever-growing legions chasing subjects. The Katmai coast, one of the country’s top spots for brown bear photography, used to be an isolated, lightly-visited locale. No longer. Two years ago a friend counted 99 people on the beach at Hallo Bay but just one bear. A sharp contrast to previous years when a person could see 30 bears at one time and few people. Many parks and reserves are overrun with people intent on capturing wildlife imagery.
Landscape photography also has been impacted. Iconic landmarks, such as Delicate Arch, Bryce Canyon, Old Faithful, Yosemite, Utah’s Wave, Wonder Lake, and other features, have been impacted, and photographed so often that nothing new or original seems possible. Not long ago I was at Utah’s Mesa Arch and was overwhelmed by literally 100 other shooters, many of then intent on selfies, an abomination of the Iphone Age.
The obvious upshot of the surge in nature photography is that many people want to sell their photographs, or at least see their photos in print. Some want the money; others simply the recognition. The advanced technology, coupled with software, makes it possible for almost anyone to produce remarkable imagery. What was publishable in the past, is no longer good enough. It didn’t take long for publishers to exploit the over-abundance of imagery. As collections expanded, and photo submissions soared, many magazines began to hold “contests,” which in reality were rights grabs that allowed them to utilize images without payment, except for maybe a grand prize awarded to one lucky entrant. In fact, one publication sponsors three or four contests a year, largely gathering a year’s worth of illustrations at little, or no cost. Most of the “winners” receive no compensation other than seeing their name in print. Recognition drives some people. I met one shooter who was so desperate to see his bear photos in print that he paid the magazine $1500 to have them published. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
Often, we see articles on-line, or in photo magazines, entitled How-to Sell Your Photos, or Careers in Photography, or some such. These articles are almost always written by people who have never been free-lance photographers, or know very little about today’s business of photography. Limiting my comments solely to nature photography, I’d say it’s almost impossible for any newcomer to break into the field and make a decent living. The competition is so brutal that many long-time nature professionals long turned to leading tours and workshops in order to extend their careers. From what I hear, even that field has begun to falter, even before the global pandemic curtailed travel. Somewhere along I read a statement that said that in any field “10% of the people make 90% of the money.” What’s true in high finance, show business or sports, is also true in nature photography. A few always seem to fight their way into a good place, leaving most others by the way side. God or bad, the modern era is a difficult time for any young person to attempt to try and establish a career in nature photography.
Lastly, print sales have also suffered from over-flowing inventory. A few photographers who used to make solid incomes from print sales, have either had to cut prices in order to compete, or gone out of business altogether. Of course, as I said, there are exceptions and a few print photographers do quite well. Still, given the extraordinary cost of equipment and travel, coupled with competition from a vast army of hobbyists, full-time professional nature photographers are a vanishing breed.
I’m one of those who has been affected by all the changes. I’m very grateful to have had the experiences I’ve been afforded, and for the places I’ve visited and the things I’ve seen and photographed. In my view, the expanded interest in nature and wildlife photography is both good and bad. I rue the negative impact on wildlife and wildlands which results in resource damage. On the other hand, an expanded base of people interested in nature and wildlife is a good thing, creating advocates for conservation and preservation.